The common man would assume that more protection against potentially career-threatening injuries would be welcomed by NFL players.
The common man doesn’t play football, though. He watches, usually with one hand buried deep inside of some cajun squirrel potato chips. He’s a creature who often either isn’t aware of the physical rigors of football, or bases his entire perception of the game through the prism of his experience as a freckled 15-year-old who couldn’t run a proper post route.
When the league passed a new rule yesterday at the owners meetings that will make thigh and knee pads mandatory for the 2013 season, the response from players was generally swift, and generally angry. In the 24 hours since that decision there’s been a pleasant plethora of angst regarding the new protection, but perhaps the most accurate quote came from new Broncos cornerback Drayton Florence.
“My opinion is that I don’t want to wear them, but you have to follow the rules and policies,” Florence said. “I just think that’s a way for them to kind of cover themselves with things that have been going on in the past.”
Emphasis mine, and Roger Goodell’s.
Goodell will tell you that the motivation for the new rule mandating the extra padding is that simple logic we began with. It goes something like this: more protection leads to fewer injuries, and having fewer injuries is good, right?
And indirectly and quite surface-y, that’s true. But the league hasn’t mandated thigh and knee pads for well over a decade. So why now? Our friend Roger is pretty tired of getting sued, that’s why.
If you assigned the list of players who are suing the NFL to their respective positions and put them on a team, they could probably beat the 2011 Rams. The list of concussion-related lawsuits against the NFL is now at 81, with Eric Dickerson and Johnnie Morton most recently joining the party. Never mind that brutal right hook to Morton’s chin that ended his first and only MMA fight. Yep, there’s no way that dislodged some brain matter…
Judo chops and muay tai kicks aside, Goodell is exercising every possible measure to minimize future litigation, and to alter the public perception that he doesn’t care about players when their careers are over. That perception has grown in the weeks since Junior Seau’s death.
Knees aren’t the primary battering rams used to inflict concussions. The weapon of choice for most is the head, which is why the league has implemented wide-ranging rules changes barring players from launching and hitting defenseless receivers over the past few seasons despite the multiple hitmen James Harrison has sent to Goodell’s address.
Still, the mere possibility of a knee to the head causing an injury is more than enough. Every opportunity for injury needs to be erased, and if it means players will be a little uncomfortable and feel as though they’re being slowed down, so be it.
For some, the need for comfort and speed runs deep. Raiders cornerback Ron Bartell said that he’s already saving money for fines because he doesn’t enjoy be over-padded. Fines won’t be the punishment, though, as the league likely won’t let players onto the field if they’re not wearing the required uniform. Thigh and knee pads will be part of the uniform now, so conform or sit.
Chargers linebacker Jarret Johnson called it a PR stunt.
“The repetitive amount of hits we take, day in and day out — this, to me, is a PR stunt … If you get hit in the legs, you’re doing something wrong. You’re either getting cut or standing there. Usually, when guys are aggressive and they’re hitting back, the legs aren’t usually getting hit.”
It’s not a stunt, it’s a necessity. A PR stunt is an unnecessary and often absurd measure, but injury-related litigation has pushed the league past its lawsuit tolerance threshold, forcing Goodell to fight for every inch of padding.
He’s protecting the league, and protecting the players from themselves.